On June 6th, Governor Abbott announced that the 85th Texas Legislature would be called back on July 18th for a special session to take up twenty issues left unresolved after the close of the regular session in May. The governor made clear on multiple occasions that he felt the legislature had had time in the regular session to resolve these issues, if they so chose; so, what could cause the governor to take this drastic of an action?
In my last article, I started my look at “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” of the 85th session with a review of the “good”, the ability for both chambers, and both parties, to come together and produce a working budget agreement. The answer to why we will be returning on July 18th, however, covers “the bad”. I’ll save “the ugly” for last.
On its face, the special session is the result of the failure to pass a bill that would renew the Texas Medical Board. Without such a bill, at the end of the current fiscal year on September 1st, the Texas Medical Board would enter into a forced shutdown, possibly permanently, leaving no one to license doctors in the state. These “sunset bills” as they are known, are considered “Must Pass” legislation; they are bills “Too Big to Fail”. However, the real question is why such an important bill did not pass during the regular session.
The Speaker of the House, the Lieutenant Governor, and the Governor, all have their own lists of priorities they wish to accomplish during their term, and those lists don’t always line up with each other. When the people in charge of the law-making process become aggravated at an inability to accomplish those goals, then the process itself begins to be used as a bargaining chip to achieve what they want.
If the House isn’t happy with something the Senate is doing, for instance, they could simply refuse to schedule Senate Bills for hearings or votes, and the Senate can do the same, and the governor can threaten a veto. Often this is done with contrasting priorities: Legislator A lets something I don’t like from Legislator B through so that Legislator B will let something of Legislator As through committee, for example. If they reach an agreement, they both get their pet projects done, and if they fail to come to terms, then all they lose is their pet project.
In the 85th session, Lieutenant Governor Patrick pushed hard for his agenda on property tax rollback elections, Education Savings Accounts to allow for an expansion of school choice, and regulations on who can enter which bathroom in a government building. Speaker Straus, on the other hand, seemed to focus the House on bringing more efficiency and effectiveness from our public school finance system, making Texas a more attractive state to business, and increasing access to mental health options.
Not only were the priorities of each chamber different, they ran almost completely opposite one another. The priorities of the Senate, namely the Women’s privacy act, in the eyes of the House, ran against the priority of making Texas a more attractive state for business. This transforms what had previously been a “you get yours if I get mine” situation into an “Unstoppable force meets an immovable object” situation. The ability to compromise and work together suddenly vanishes; only to be replaced by leverage and coercion.
However, when something like a sunset bill comes along, it can become a much more serious bargaining chip. Rather than simply risking their pet project, the leadership of either chamber may hold the proverbial “gun to the head” of a major state agency, turning legislating into a hostage negotiation, one that was never resolved.
And so, we find ourselves here, facing a special session in which, to prevent the effects of the deadlock from spilling over and disrupting the ongoing business of the state, we must first handle the sunset process for the Texas Medical Board before tackling any other topic.
The use of the Texas Medical Board sunset bill as a bargaining chip was bad, but the ugly, which I will address in more detail next time, comes down to the fundamental questions of what we hold as the role of a representative in our form of government, and if we believe making law is more a collaborative or adversarial effort.
Our political methodology, both in Austin and in Washington, has been trending away from collaborative law-making, where all the sides come together and attempt to work out their differences and find something that can be generally agreed on. Instead, there is a shift towards an “Us v Them” scenario. There is no longer any true attempt to persuade, inform, or collaborate. Victory comes only at the unconditional surrender or total defeat of the opposition.
If we want to break this deadlock, we must encourage the leadership to adopt a new vision for how we conduct our politics, which will result in good governance for the people of Texas.